In a country where official Jewish life is overwhelmingly Orthodox, Delphine Horvilleur is something of a
scandal, a married mother of three who defies centuries of gender norms in a manicured corner of French
public life. A cause célèbre, she remains unrecognized by France’s central Jewish authority. Extremists
regularly threaten her on social media.
She welcomes those with Jewish fathers, those who identify as LGBT and encourages community service in the name of Jewish values.
But what is perhaps most scandalous about “Madame le Rabbin,” as she is often called, transcends Jewish politics. Unlike the United States, France is a staunchly secular country that expressly bans religion from public life. In violation of that long-standing separation, Horvilleur is insisting that religion should play a role in this Western society now struggling with religious fundamentalism, both foreign and homegrown.
halal meats or that we don’t want exams on Shabbat. But it’s not that at all,” she said, sipping green tea in the cafe beneath her daughter’s dance studio. “People are in search of a dialogue with their personal identities and how they relate to their identities as a citizen.”
Uniquely, France expects its citizens to bracket their affiliations with any particular identity group in favor of “the Republic,” an abstract community of equal citizens who bear no difference from each other, at least in theory. To that end, the state refuses to collect any data on race, ethnicity or religion — categories that, officially, are not supposed to exist.
Horvilleur takes issue with this line, and her argument is that one can easily be French as well as
“I’m Jewish, yes, but I’m not just Jewish — I’m French, a woman, a mother, many things.
Whenever I say that, people always tell me, ‘Ah, what courage!’ And that just shows you how much work
there is to do.”
This month, Horvilleur published a book — “1,001 Ways of Being Jewish or Muslim” — with Rachid
Benzine, one of France’s most prominent advocates of a liberal, progressive Islam. The book is a defense of the plurality of religious identity, and a call to reclaim religions from leaders who “favor the return of obscurantisms, an isolation from the rest of the world and a rejection — sometimes deadly — of ‘others.’ “
In France, where more than 200 people have been killed in the past two years in terrorist attacks linked or inspired by Islamic State, the question of “Islamist extremism” is a mainstay of public debate. But “obscurantism” is not the exclusive province of conservative Islam, Horvilleur has argued. French Judaism is in dire need of a liberal renewal, she insists.